Fire and Ice

I’m sitting here by heart lake in warm Autumnal sunshine with my feet soaking in the cool water and contemplating what has been one of the toughest and most varied few weeks of hiking I have ever experienced. This is the first day that i can remember recently where I have finished the day with dry feet! Today I removed my socks to a plume of dust and built up stink, as opposed to peeling them off my frozen and pruned up feet.

Two weeks ago, Montana was on fire. A record breakingly hot September and dry late summer pushed these fires out of all control and, with five hundred miles left to hike, only a few hundred miles were open. Latterly, even the northern terminus of the trail and then all of Glacier National Park was closed for business. The majority of the miles through southern montana were socked in with smoke magnifying the heat of the sun and sticking in your lungs. What we needed was rain, and lots of it.

What happened over the next few days was a precipitous drop in temperature an increase in wind and, starting with a little dusting of snow, a full blown blizzard then swept across Montana. Three or four separate storms swept over us and caught us completely off guard. Hikers were descending from the divide with epic tales of thigh high snow drifts, of waking up under a tent collapsed with snow, of boots and shoes frozen solid and unwearable, frozen water and falling trees, of digging out buried water sources and taking impromptu and wild imaginative detours off the divide to lower and less snowy ground.

Now, as I sit here basking, it seems a lifetime ago. I now have all of my winter gear bar an ice axe and labour under its weight daily. I’m almost longing for more snow just so I can justify the hassle I’ve put myself and poor Josh (my heroic logistics guy) through to get it here.

Now I love winter travel, I absolutely adore it; the feeling of fresh snow crunching under your feet, the sight of fresh animal tracks on the ground, the way the light reflects off the snow and up onto the trees, the muffled and total silence, in its essence, the sheer winter wonderland-ness of it all. However, to hit these conditions when you are 60 miles from civilisation and wearing short shorts and tennis shoes is a problem. For one day it’s uncomfortable, for much longer than one day and you can run into trouble pretty fast. Slowly, everything you own gets wet. Your shoes and socks go first, then the tent as your frozen breath defrosts by day, if your tent is small, this moisture will transfer to your sleeping bag, reducing the loft of its precious down left and making each night colder than the last. If you’re unlucky, your clothes get wet. Thankfully this is hard to achieve what with snow being solid and all but, accidents happen and rain gear that was once shiney and new is now old, battered and mouldy. In short, these are conditions that need a completely different set of gear and mentality that those possessed by your average through hiker this late in the season, myself included, with stripped down packs and high milage attitudes.

Three times in the last two weeks we have been forced to abandon the trail for a road or jeep track, to detour on highways around higher elevations and to retreat back into civilisation for a good meal and warm bed. Amazon has made literal thousands of dollars from my party alone as boots, warmer gloves, base layers and microspikes are ordered express to the next town (sometimes ordered sat down mid blizzard!)

So now, my pack is as heavy as it’s ever been. I have two huge boots strapped to its outside, two massive puffy down jackets and far more food than I think I’ll need. Right now as I sit here basking I can’t think I will need it, but if the last few weeks have taught me anything, everything can change in just a few tenths of a mile and knowing our luck, it probably will.

They say this trail is brutal and that is something I cannot dispute. It has chewed us up and spit us out, scratched us and beaten us, showed us intense beauty and great devastation, I have been at once terrified and amazed, hurt and bleeding and I’m still not ready to bow out. So tomorrow I’ll put on my pack with a heave and a groan and once more try to walk to Canada, I’m trying really hard, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll get there one day .

BC x

http://www.virginmoneygiving.com/tomonthecdt.

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Wyoming, the basin and the woes of ten toes

Hmmm. An update…. We tried to get through Wyoming in 20 days, the promise of flat trail and cow shit water not encouraging us to hang around. Somebody we met in northern Colorado even apologised to us about Wyoming and how bad it would be. Luckily for us they were massively wrong! Wyoming was one of the best surprises I have ever experienced on trail. Initially we were dreading the baron and waterless “Basin” but it had a stark beauty that was comparable to the more remote sections of the north island on the Te Araroa. Flat and scrubby desert plains leading into brown grassy mountains with occasional lush flowing springs supplying ample water if you were prepared to carry it to avoid the cow shit brown grot that the cows drank, pissed and shat in (sometimes all at the same time). My shoes, purchased in Salida were the last of a bad batch that were delaminating and tearing out after a few hundred miles. The company had agreed to replace them for free but inexplicably decided not to mail them out for ten days after they’d agreed to honor the exchange. The result was that I arrived in town before the shoes did and, having novelty sized feet, had no option but to keep going in torn, glued and badly repaired shoes, already several hundred miles beyond where they should have been thrown out. The majority of the 200 miles to the north was on hard packed dirt road in blazing heat and my feet thanked me by blistering up on both heels, big toes and the balls of my feet. We pushed big miles through here, completing 130 miles in 4.5 days. New shoes finally came at Pinedale and are still feeling box fresh (if not smelling box fesh) some 200 miles on. I have lost 6.5 out of 10 toenails. 65%! One day, after sime 150 miles of “basin” we rounded a corner and there on the horizon were high snowy peaks of shattered rock reaching several thousand feet up. Within a day we were at the base – we had reached The Winds. We stopped overnight in a town called Lander where I had the best burger I have had on the trail, served unashamedly rare and juicy. It was amazing and well worth the 24 hr shitting and vomiting disease that it gave me some days later, although I might not have agreed at the time. This came to a head in the middle of the first leg into the winds, we had entered the Cirque Du Towers and huge peaks that brought the Patagonian Andes to mind were towering all around us. I managed 15 miles on the first day before collapsing, completely spent, on the trail halfway up Texas Pass. It was an area of staggering beauty and, in the moments between violent retching or running to the woods, I noted that I’d like to come back here some day. I slept for 15 straight hours and awoke feeling much better, if not massively dehydrated. So through the winds we had a few setbacks, initially of the pooping kind but latterly of the unexplainable foot pain kind. Motown got a flat tyre of epic proportions and despite new shoes, Socks and insoles bought during various side trips into the town of Pinedale, one of which involved a 100 mile hitch and the loss of my ipod, she was still limping with pain. So what should have been an 8 day section ended up taking us 11 days but, as The Winds were one of the most exceptional mountain ranges I have ever had the pleasure to walk through, I didn’t mind in the slightest. Also there was this other thing that, had we been a day earlier or later, would have deprived me of one of the most intense and poignant experiences of my life – The Eclipse. Owning to our own entirely circumstantial dumb luck, we landed ourselves on the day of the eclipse on the top of a completely inaccessible peak (6 hour bush-bash over Lava anyone?) and we were right slap bang in the path of totality. We shared the north east face with no one but a herd of Elk, with a view over jagged sawtoothed mountains and a ribbon of deserted highway as one of the most intense light displays I have ever witnessed played out in the sky above and the valleys below. For two exquisite minutes we had absolute totality as we both stared slack Jawed at what was happening around us. It really did get very dark. As the sun disappeared behind the moon, the sky filled with stars and the mountains and valleys grew pitch black, we struggled with our footing as we were standing on a slope and were too busy staring upward. It got really cold. I witnessed an eclipse aged 11 in England and, being in England, of course it was cloudy and we didn’t see a thing except for a few moments of darkness. The whole thing was a bit unremarkable and I went into this one expecting something similar. Once again how happy I was to be proved wrong. For some twenty minutes after the totality had passed we just sat dumbfounded by what we had experienced, unable to say much more than the occasional monosyllabic “wow” or to comment on some trick of the light. Today was a town day and instead of feeling like we should be moving on to gorge on cheeseburgers and beer, we just sat, unable to shift our gaze or find the motivation to move on. Something inside us had been deeply moved. It took a long time to move from that spot and an even longer time to climb down the mile long Lava shoot to firmer, more stable ground. The ribbon of highway that seemed so close from the summit took us several hours to reach as there was no trail In between and finally, some four days over due, we reached Dubois. The path of totality was some thirty miles in diameter, had everything gone to plan we would have been too far north to have experienced much more than a brief chill as the sun’s rays were diminished by the moon. Over the last decade I have walked rather a long way, its become the core of my being and the main focus of my existence and even my profession. My journeys have led me across some eleven thousand miles of trail and yet I felt strangley like all of it had led to to this point. To say that everything happens for a reason is too cliche and, in some circumstances, offensively incorrect, but the universe does occasionally have a way of aligning itself sometimes to shine down on a fortuitous few and, on this day, I happened to be exactly were I was supposed to be… and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. BC x

Colorado, you cruel and beautiful beast. 

I’m nearly out of Colorado and I am running late. It’s hard to chastise myself too hard about this as, had I not taken exactly the course of action and days off that I did, I would have hit the snow too early and either had some massive mishap or had to retreat and skip some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever walked through. This seems like a good deal to me, even if it does mean potentially getting snowed on in Montana. 

The last few weeks have been breathtaking, so much so I would actually gladly turn around right now and walk them in the other direction. The landscape, the sky, the rivers, the storms and the trail all seem to have been amped up to insane proportions – everything just got a whole lot bigger. From the moment we separated from the Colorado Trail, a 484 mile route from Denver to Durango, this has been the case.  Glorious, green mountain ridges undulate and stretch in every direction, wild animals and wildflowers abound, pristine lakes and alpine meadows surprise and delight and the climbs (oh the climbs!) have stretched upwards into oblivion. 

My legs feel amazing… Mostly. Some days they power under me like two great locomotives, not bothered about up or down, just raring to move me through this landscape. Right now, for example, I have just finished walking 26 miles and am propped up on a log in a meadow waiting for my hiking companions whom I haven’t seen since I left camp this morning, I have been waiting here for an hour and I could well be here for another. I felt so good all day that I barely stopped for a break, other than to get water and quickly wolf down a sandwich, as a result I got massively ahead. Despite this marathon day, I honestly don’t feel tired. I am 13 miles to a road and a town and feel like I could easily walk that distance right now, the terrain would suit it, it’s mostly flat or down hill. 

However, all of this can change instaneously. Some days (or rather some parts of some days) you just cannot get yourself moving. You know those days? We all get them I am sure, but where as you at home might just be mildly underperfroming at work, being a little grumpy and off with food servers or flagrantly ignoring your children’s cries for attention, I am up at around thirteen thousand feet in either blasting sun, hail or soul-numbing rain, with the equivalent weight of a medium sized toddler on my back, trying to haul myself up and over some rocky/grassy extrusion and then safely descend the other side. Add to this the excitement of an imminent, or indeed present, lightning storm and you can see how I might struggle.  Whether this is because of diet, sleep, fluctuations in the earth’s gravity or just plain lethargy is at this point unknown. 

I have fourteen-hundred miles left to hike, I guess I best get to it. 

The pursuit of purity.

Hello all! I’m walking into Grant’s, NM and typing this to try and get my head away from the throbbing in my feet, the heat from the road and the infernal logistics of trying to be a pedestrian in a town built exclusively to service interstate 40. From where I walk into town (right by a dirty Mcdonald’s!) to the motel where I hope to sleep is 3 miles. All of this is on unshouldered highway  with 2 or 3 lanes of fast moving traffic in each direction. Those three miles in this journey of three thousand, I can almost guarantee, will be risky, scary and entirely forgettable.

There are trail purists that will aim to get complete and continuous footsteps from one border to another and good on them. I have aimed to do this on each of my previous hikes and ALWAYS I have failed somewhere near the end, be it for logistics, fire, river crossing or some other unforseen circumstance. Initially the gap bothers me but after some time I cease to care. I spent 5 months walking the PCT and because I had to miss 13 miles owing to a fire closure, does that make the other 2662 miles that I walked invalid? 

I love to look at a map, or even a GLOBE, and think of all the land I have covered on foot since my 21st birthday, some 9000 miles and counting now. It gives me more satisfaction than anything else I could have spent that time and money doing.

However, these trips come at a cost. My friendships and relationships back home, wherever that home is, are continously put on hold. As a result I can feel lonely and isolated but, being out here has taught me to deal with that too. That’s a cost I can cope with.

Last year two PCT hikers were killed in the name of purity,  mown down on a highway trying to walk around a fire closure. This seems to me to be an unjustifiable cost for the sake of maintaining a continous path. Not all roads are unwalkable, some, like the one I’m  on now, are lovely, some, however, are definitly not built for pedestrian travel and pose a risk to both pedestrian and driver.

 I would like to keep hiking until I die and, when that time comes, I am happy to die being eaten by a bear, being mauled until pulpy by a mountain lion or falling into some yawning chasm. If that happens, it will have been on my terms, at a location where I chose to spend my time because of its beauty and wonder, a place that has moulded and guided not just my life, but even the lives of those I have met over he years. I’d obviously be horrified to die under such circumstances, I, like most people, would like to live forever.  But to die in the pursuit of beauty has a rather nicer ring to it than getting blutered flat by some inattentive truck driver. 

I have hiked highways, hell, the Te Araroa in NZ was almost all road walking. I know exactly how it feels to walk on a hot, paved road, being intimidated by trucks and vehicles that don’t know how scary it is to be passed at high speed with inches to spare, walking for miles and miles with no access to fresh water through endless trash and accompanied only by the stench of rotting road kill. I must have close to 800 miles of road walking behind me and, do you know what? I don’t specifically remember any of it! So, with that in mind, if anyone wants to give a ride from the north end of grants to the motel six then please get in touch, I’ll be the tall smelly hiker in the once-blue shorts with a half eaten McDonald’s in one hand and with his thumb out.